[News] The Paramilitary Massacre in Bolivia

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 17 11:48:18 EDT 2008


September 17, 2008

The Paramilitary Massacre in Bolivia

Reactionary Rampage


Bolivian President Evo Morales’ expulsion of US 
Ambassador Phillip Goldberg on September 10 for 
alleged coup plotting sparked the latest 
diplomatic crisis in the Americas. But the 
diplomatic fallout has overshadowed the internal 
dynamics that led to the massacre of some 30 
campesinos with perhaps as many as 40 more 
disappeared in El Porvenir, Pando, near Bolivia’s 
northeastern border with Brazil. The massacre 
coincided with the 35th anniversary of the 
violent overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile.

The massacre in El Porvenir was the worst in 
Bolivia since right-wing President Gonzalo 
Sánchez de Lozada presided over the slaughter of 
more than 70 unarmed protestors in October 2003. 
This time, however, the violence was not 
orchestrated by the central government, but by 
regional officials: departmental prefects in 
league with civic committees. Administratively 
organized similar to France, Bolivia is divided 
into nine departments, each run by a prefect, 
while civic committees are made up of a handful 
of unelected, local, commercial-landed elites who 
preside over one of the most unequal 
distributions of land and wealth in the world. 
These public- and private-sector authorities, in 
turn, are allied with cypto-fascist paramilitary 
youth gangs armed with baseball bats, clubs, 
chains, guns, and in the case of the massacre at 
El Porvenir, official vehicles. These groups have 
made Bolivia’s eastern lowlands ungovernable for the Morales administration.

It may be helpful for U.S. readers to consider 
Bolivia’s eastern lowlands as analogous to Dixie. 
In the 1950s and 60s, working with governors and 
mayors of states and localities, white 
supremacist paramilitary groups terrorized 
African Americans. The campaign of terror was 
intended to preserve a status quo that benefited 
a tiny class of wealthy white landowners, against 
which the federal government­under Eisenhower and Kennedy­hesitated to act.

Imagine, though, that African Americans had 
comprised an overwhelming majority of the U.S. 
population, that Kennedy was Black, and that he 
had come to power on the back of serial 
insurrections led by African Americans. Imagine 
that, in response, white supremacists not only 
massacred Blacks, but also blockaded roads, blew 
up oil pipelines, and burned and looted federal 
government offices and installations.

The limits of the analogy with the Jim Crow south 
are significant, but another analogy­from a 
century earlier, the 1850s and 60s­transcends 
them. The southern secessionist movement sought 
to preserve the republic of slavery and extend it 
through the west to the Pacific. The movement 
mobilized a mass following and mounted an armed 
challenge to the federal government. Such 
analogies help convey the virulence of what one 
commentator has labeled a “revolt of the rich,” 
as well as the scope of the challenge posed by a 
wealthy white minority to a government backed by 
a majority of workers and campesinos of Indian 
descent, a government without historical precedent.

Massive support for the central government was 
ratified as recently as August 10 in the recall 
referendum in which Morales increased his overall 
share of the vote to 67%­up from 54% when he was 
elected president in late 2005. Morales improved 
his standing in his strongholds­the cities and 
countryside of the western highlands and valleys, 
as well as the coca-growing regions in the Yungas 
and the Chapare. But more importantly, he made 
inroads in the heart of opposition country in 
Beni, Pando, and Tarija, where he won an 
additional 20% compared to 2005. In Pando, nearly 
half the population voted in favor of Morales. No 
Bolivian president has ever has ever had such broad appeal across the nation.

On the heels of victory, Morales spoke of 
dialogue and reconciliation with the opposition. 
But opposition prefects, led by Rubén Costas from 
Santa Cruz, and empowered by their substantial 
gains in the same recall vote, announced their 
intention to implement the “statutes” approved in 
“autonomy referendums” in May and June 2008. The 
“autonomy referendums” were de facto voting 
exercises, lacking any legal standing in Bolivia, 
were not recognized by any foreign government, 
and were not overseen by international observers. 
Yet opposition prefects claimed a mandate to 
install their own police, tax collection 
services, and departmental legislature. The 
implementation of this mandate could only come about through the use of force.

Then came September 11. Death squads armed with 
sub-machine guns massacred unarmed Morales 
supporters on their way to a mass meeting in El 
Porvenir. The meeting had been called to discuss 
possible responses to increasingly violent 
attacks on government supporters. The central 
government was slow to react and hesitant when it 
finally did. It could not safeguard the property 
and lives of its supporters or defend its own 
offices and functionaries; it could not even 
offer humanitarian aid to survivors, many of 
whom, fearing for their lives, hid in the 
mountains. In a televised interview, the 
presidential delegate in Pando, Nancy Texeira, 
asked in a halting voice choked by pain and 
sadness, “Why doesn’t the government in La Paz do 
anything? We have been abandoned here.”

Over the past several years, Morales has 
cultivated good relations with the police and 
armed forces, yet he has been mostly unwilling or 
unable to use either since the crisis that began 
in August. Armed opposition forces have 
overwhelmed both police and military in the 
lowlands, thus far with impunity. The Bolivian 
security forces have therefore been humiliated 
according to their shared institutional code. And 
yet, as the opposition ups the ante of violence 
and illegality, the central government becomes 
increasingly reluctant to monopolize legitimate 
use of force, and the opposition becomes ever 
more brazen in persecuting Morales supporters.

This, at least, has been the dynamic in Pando. 
Opposition prefects in Beni, Santa Cruz, and 
Tarija have pulled back to some degree from their 
onslaught, and ostensibly agreed to “dialogue” 
with the Morales government, but the damage is 
done. Morales declared martial law in Pando and 
ordered the arrest of the departmental prefect 
Leopoldo Fernández on September 12. Many of 
Morales’ supporters will be asking why he is 
pursuing dialogue with opposition prefects in 
Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija, when they­and their 
supporters­could be legitimately brought to trial for their crimes.

The emergency meeting of the South American Union 
(Unasur) convened in by President Michelle 
Bachelet in Chile on September 15 is a sign of 
changing times in the Western hemisphere. 
Military dictators like Chile’s Augusto Pinchet, 
Bolivia’s Hugo Banzer, and their bastard 
offspring, such as Leopoldo Fernández­who got his 
start in the late 1970s as a paramilitary 
operative under successive dictatorships­belong to the past.

This new regional diplomacy exercised through the 
Organization of American States (OAS), the Rio 
Group, and now Unasur has successfully confronted 
diplomatic crises triggered by the U.S. 
government and its local allies on the right. 
Although Hugo Chávez’s expulsion of the U.S. 
Ambassador from Venezuela grabbed headlines in 
the United States, the Bolivian crisis played 
quite differently in the regional media. Bolivia 
sells most f its natural gas to Brazil and 
Argentina, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio 
Lula da Silva and Argentine President Cristina 
Fernandez denounced the separatist movement in 
unusually strong terms. The outcome of the Unasur 
meeting further proved that Morales has robust 
support from neighboring governments and the 
major inter-state organizations to which they belong

Given regional repudiation of secessionist 
movements in Bolivia and Morales’ overwhelming 
support at home, opposition forces have little 
chance of toppling Morales and installing a 
right-wing government. Furthermore, they must 
contend with formidable and rising resistance 
within their own departments, not only in the 
countryside but also in the cities: the northern 
part of Beni is controlled by indigenous groups 
that back the Morales government, for example, 
while peasant supporters of Morales fought 
pitched street battles against the opposition in 
Tarija (the capital city of the department with the same name).

The reactionary rampage in the lowlands is the 
result of a desperate, cornered minority that has 
been given considerable breathing room by a weak, 
vacillating central government that nevertheless 
enjoys massive popular backing. Since it can’t 
take back the central government and is isolated 
internationally, the opposition’s last weapon is 
to bleed the Morales administration of legitimacy 
by making the country ungovernable.

The opposition has demonstrated the central 
government’s inability to impose the rule of law 
amid public-private terror against its 
supporters­a spectacular triumph for any 
right-wing movement. Since August’s recall 
referendum, the arc of illegality and violence 
traced by the opposition has been unmistakable. 
While no one anticipated the scale of the 
massacre in El Porvenir, it was all but certain that one would occur.

What if the Bolivian government had tried to 
prevent this tragedy by sending in the army and 
riot police before any of its supporters were 
killed, instead of reacting weakly and hesitantly 
ex post facto? Will the government rise to the 
occasion in the future, or are there more massacres to come?
If the Morales administration is not able to 
guarantee the lives and property of supporters, 
some of them may be tempted to take justice into 
their own hands, in which case the media cliché 
of pending “civil war,” until now a mere figure 
of rhetoric, could become reality. Regardless of 
what happens in the future, there is now one more 
massacre to commemorate on September 11, and the 
dilemma signaled by Allende’s tragic example remains as daunting as ever.

Forrest Hylton is the author of 
Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair 
Thomson, of 
Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics 
(Verso, 2007). He is a frequent contributor to <http://news.nacla.org/>NACLA.

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